Living the Dream

An Allegory for Breaking Procedure

Essay - Living the Dream

Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. His written offerings can be found on ThumbsticksPixels or Death, and Medium Difficulty, and he blogs on Invalid Memory.

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What happens when videogames frustrate narrative lucidity and the expected norms of play? Every Day the Same Dream, a 2009 short game authored by Paolo Pedercini and his Italian collective Molleindustria, resists the formulaic patterns of videogame composition to produce new meaning. Gaming essayist Braxton Soderman points to Molleindustria’s penchant for disruptive play, recounting the developers’ ability to “…confront a variety of political, economic, and social issues, embracing a form of design ‘that aims at starting a serious discussion about social and political implications of videogames’” (Soderman). This critical analysis of Every Day the Same Dream locates not only the social and political objectives of the game but also its buried critique of videogame form itself. In offering cyclical patterns of gameplay and monotonous imagery, Pedercini emboldens the ability to break videogame procedure, evoking McKenzie Wark’s notion of allegorical play and destabilizing the procedural rhetoric that Ian Bogost longs to agitate. Moreover, Every Day the Same Dream affirms the expressive capacity of videogame language, antagonizing the generic conventions recycled by familiar algorithms and prosaic authorship.

Recurring Dreams

Every Day the Same Dream is a game that centers on its player-character working through the daily motions in the early morning, from getting ready for work to stepping into an office cubicle amongst dozens of faceless drones. The gameplay consists of repeated routines in a stark, grayscale world and anonymous human stick figures unquestioningly falling into the trappings of endless procedures. But Every Day the Same Dream isn’t necessarily about corporate existential crisis, but the more general cycles of repeated procedures that all human beings encounter on a day-to-day basis. The game examines a self-governed, structured sense of time that hinders our capacities for fulfillment, engaging with procedurality and meaningful algorithms to represent and frustrate these cyclical actions. The game works through repetition, doubling back on itself to encourage disobedience and “breaking procedure” to move towards the game’s resolution lest the player endlessly toil through the same repeated motions. Consequently, the game raises a rhetorical argument via its relation to procedures, a concept that Ian Bogost examines in his writings on procedural rhetoric. He defines the term as “a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computational arguments others have created,” and Every Day the Same Dream is a game fundamentally about frustrating familiar procedures both in terms of simulated daily routines and its own gameplay (Bogost 3). The game stakes a claim in probing the limitations of gameplay and combating conformity and existential ennui in an otherwise black and white nightmare, an allegory for our own deeply structured lives through the experience of cyclical play.

Even before tapping the controls of the game, the immediate art design evokes conformity and obedience, images that reflect what its gameplay has to offer. Faceless, identical automatons with looped animations and colorless landscapes with only occasional dashes of evocative color bespeak a soulless world of alienation and conformity. The looped music and lack of dialogue further contributes to the silencing of individual voices, and the tight letterboxing of game space produces a claustrophobic, isolating world. Nevertheless, it’s the gameplay itself that hammers home ultimate conformity, producing a sleepwalker-esque player-character discouraged from any deviation. The gameplay boasts a minimalist control scheme to match its austere art style, featuring only arrow keys to move and a spacebar to interact with the environment (turn off alarm, step inside a car, etc.). This stripped-down gameplay stands in for our daily morning routines, and it also reflects Bogost’s notion of procedurality. Bogost defines the term as processes of complex systems, and in the case of Every Day the Same Dream, its procedurality centers on everyday routines of normal life and work (Bogost 3). Moreover, Bogost identifies procedures as “established, entrenched ways of doing things… a static course of action, perhaps an old, tired one in need of revision,” and Molleindustria’s game approaches procedures as something to subvert and challenge (Bogost 3).

Becoming a New Person

Constantly progressing to the right of the screen and interacting with all the assumed actions of going to work (putting on clothes, driving) without question merely cycles through the same dream, endlessly. The game spits the player-character to the start of the day without change, entombing the player in the same cycle for constant repetition. Only when the player acknowledges the algorithmic machinations of the game – when “the gamer selects one sequence after another, and gradually learns what they do” – does Every Day the Same Dream begin to unravel (Wark). Thus, defying the expectations of player choice and subverting the assumed procedures of the game results in great change. Five specific deviations from the norm trigger an end state to circumvent the repeated “dream,” a development made clear by a cryptic old woman who suggests, “5 more steps and you will be a new person.” These subversive acts break procedure, allowing the familiar algorithms to enter into the realm of allegory. Game theorist McKenzie Wark specifically discusses The Sims in relation to what he coins “allegorithm,” a term that designates when algorithm and allegory work in tandem to create representational meaning within the nuances of the game’s own coded algorithms and the processes of play (Wark). Every Day the Same Dream certainly shares similar mechanics to The Sims, especially in its encouragement of daily routines in the service of monotonous work schedules. Yet unlike The Sims, Molleindustria’s game only advances to an end state through a subversion of these algorithms of procedure. In one example, moving to the left after leaving your apartment leads to an encounter with a homeless man. In another, choosing to bypass getting dressed leads to a confrontation with your workplace boss. Although procedures govern behavior, “we tend to ‘see’ a process only when we challenge it,” and Every Day the Same Dream makes plain the notion that processes can be challenged and disobeyed in the service of transcendent fulfillment apart from monotony (Bogost 3).

Indeed, only when breaking procedure both literally in the game’s algorithmic framework and metaphorically as in the player-character’s transformation into “a new person” does Every Day the Same Dream defy its own “constant repetition of banal, limited interactions that become a repeated algorithm” (Soderman). The content of the game consequently suggests a critique of monotonous videogame algorithm and a gesture towards expression in a colorless world devoid of personality. In order to attack the familiar conventions of videogames, Molleindustria lulls us into established systems of play only to reflexively bend the fourth wall and undercut player expectations altogether. Rather than remain rooted in genre territory like The Sims, the game welcomes oneiric visual language that redirects our attention to the full possibility of the allegorical and the self-critical. Every Day the Same Dream lays claim to recognizable game language, but by rupturing its own conventions, the game not only opens discourse on breaking procedure, but also becomes “a new person” in its entirety.

Unreality is Broken

McKenzie Wark suggests that “the game is a knowable algorithm from which you know you can escape; gamespace is an unknown algorithm from which there is no escape,” and Every Day the Same Dream makes this notion literal but also frustrates it in its open-ended resolution (Wark). After completing all five deviations from the normal procedure, the player-character enters a dreamlike state within an already dreamlike world where all the characters have vanished from the familiar game space. You encounter a double of yourself committing suicide from a ledge at the far end of the game space, an uncanny repetition of what’s already happened before. Conclusion of the game leads to a cycle back to the main menu, suggesting an even further cyclical pattern of repetition as the game starts over at the player’s choosing. Nevertheless, Molleindustria seems to gesture towards hope, even redemption despite this fairly cheerless ending. The moments in which the player breaks procedure are loaded with meaning even if they’re open-ended and left undefined. The autumnal color of the falling leaf is especially significant, calling attention to the cyclical nature of seasonal change as comparable to the player-character’s predictable routines. The game suggests that even though time cycles back on itself for all eternity, this endless procedurality doesn’t necessarily have to entail nihilistic gloom. Spring is just around the corner for new things to blossom; there’s potential for great change here, no matter how fleeting.


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Discussant’s Reply

James Paul Gee is Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University. His recent publications, including What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003, Second Edition 2007), have focused on video games, language, and learning.

For me, what makes a video game good is a loving marriage between game mechanics and content.  In classic traditional video games content is composed of problems to be solved, not narrative first and foremost.  When the game mechanic fits the problem space well, gamers get a sense of both exhilaration and illumination.  The deft combos and wall runs in Ninja Gaiden are a good example: Ninja moves, Ninja problems.  The balancing and transforming mechanics in DragonBox are another good example: Algebra moves, Algebra problems.

One corollary of the game mechanic-problem matchup is that there must be a non-trivial difficulty to the problem solving or we don’t have real problems and the very nature of the traditional video game is lost.  It has been, for me as a gamer, fascinating to watch the independent game industry—largely energized by the downloadable-game services of Steam, the platforms, and App Stores—spin out a new array of game mechanic-content matches where difficulty takes a back seat.

In Flower, a beautiful take on a ring game mechanic is used not to solve Monkey Ball problems, but to evoke emotion and wonder and create poetry in motion as the game’s content.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons uses an intriguing game mechanic in terms of which the player manipulates each brother with a different thumbstick to create a sense of embodied collaboration and mutual belonging, rather than to solve difficult problems.  Even when there is difficulty here, it is the clumsiness of jointly manipulating the brothers which becomes an embodiment of the difficulties of collaborative joint action.  The Stanley Parable—a game that bears some thematic similarities to Every Day the Same Dream—joins a mechanic of exploration with a sense of mystery residing at the boundaries of ritual and routine.  And, of course, there is now a plethora of digital-story games—like the Walking Dead series—that create spiffy mechanics to enact, not just tell, a story.

There are a great many more game mechanic-content matches to be found—indeed, this may soon become the cutting edge of video games as both entertainment and art.  Problems can and will arise.  Coercion, heavy-handed messages, and rhetorical manipulation do not mix well with the ideas of player choice and agency that are the heart of gaming for many gamers.  But then they do not mix well with poetry either.

Miguel Penabella makes a central point about Every Day the Same Dream that hits at the heart of video games and their relationship to other art forms.  He says that “[r]ather than remain rooted in genre territory like The SimsEvery Day the Same Dream lays claim to recognizable game language, but by rupturing its own conventions”.  The Sims does not, in fact, “remain rooted in genre territory”.  Its conventions are regularly broken by players who use cheats to “mod” the game and make up challenges (such as living life as a poor single parent) that break those conventions.  And this is what Will Wright intended, since his goal was to unleash players’ creativity.

In more content-centered forms of art like novels and film the artist or auteur “manipulates” form to affect the reader/viewer.  In games it is often the players (“readers”, “viewers”) who create, because they are—or can be—the manipulators of the game’s mechanics.  Gaming at its best is more akin to writing than reading and more social than both are in the modern world.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. “Procedural Rhetoric.” Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. 1-64. Print.

Every Day the Same Dream. Molleindustria. 2009. Videogame.

Soderman, Braxton. “Every Game the Same Dream? Politics, Representation, and the Interpretation of Video Games” Dichtung Digital, 1 Jan 2010. Web. 13 June 2014. <http://www.dichtung-digital.org/2010/soderman/soderman.htm>.

Wark, McKenzie. “Allegory (on The Sims).” Gamer Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. n.p. Print.